Rethink Education

Education is a difficult idea. We all think we know what it means, but few do. I am one of those who knows too little, so I cannot help with the detail. Maybe a look from far above the fray would help.

What should you teach?

There are choices:

  1. Subject matter. Here is the history of what we, as a people, have learned about this subject.
  2. Understanding. Here is how you can think critically about what people tell you.
  3. How to argue. The purpose is for both to learn. Proving who is right is not important.
  4. Communication. Here are ways to learn from what others know and ways for you to tell them what you know,  efficiently.
  5. Methods. There is an advantage to being able to read faster. Note taking helps. Memory aids. Filing, How to use external resources.

The overview of education

Everything is either history or language. What we know and how we can tell each other about it. In that view, biology and geology are history — what we know so far. English, French, Spanish, art, music, mathematics, and accounting are languages. Ways to to pass information to others.

The important factor in history-like  subjects is the idea of change and seeking new and better descriptions of how things work. That is as true in sociology as it is in quantum mechanics. If the subject becomes settled it is no longer of much use.

Emphasizing subjects

The emphasis seems to be on subjects rather than the other aspects.

If children were taught this is how we came to this point in a subject, here’s what we don’t know but think we can work out, here’s what seems to be conflicted, and here’s how it attaches to our lives, subject learning would be more dynamic. The idea would be to look for the meaning rather than the specific knowledge. Specific knowledge will attache if you know meaning. Meaning won’t necessarily attach to specific knowledge.

Ignoring the idea of language makes some subjects more difficult. If math were taught as a language with its own vocabulary and grammar, the idea of communicating immensely complex ideas in a simple way would provide a framework to learn more. People would get the meaning and technique would make sense.

Music and art are much the same. Different kinds of ideas, but it’s the meaning that matters. Why does some abstract art touch us? In music why does changing the key change the feeling?

The idea is to create a vision for the purpose of learning.

The danger of  education

When something seems settled, there is a tendency to teach what it is rather than what it means. It’s the idea of received wisdom. People should notice that received wisdom is seldom, if ever,  presented with the reasoning for it.  Those who teach this way want the student to accept meaning. When the subject is presented as settled no one looks for it.

The conventional argument of being taught what to think instead of how to think arises and while overstated, is often enough true that we should care.

First approach

The idea of settled should be extinguished from every subject. Our experience tells us that nothing is settled.

If we take the chemistry-history, we would find it adding a new chapter every few years. Our ideas from 1920 are dissimilar to our ideas today. The same would be true for physics, engineering, and architecture.

There are other subjects that have created a body of knowledge that is far bigger than it was but not so specific. Psychology, sociology, political science, various cultural studies, have added value, but much of what they have built is not yet formally provable. May not be ever. These seem to be the study of tendencies rather than projectable outcomes. There is nothing wrong with that. They will grow more rigorous as time p[asses and people find new variables, methods, and ways to describe. Physics and chemistry were once there too.

Do you point out the value of seeking opposing opinion? Seek an evolved answer. You need more than one viewing point for that.

Learning is dynamic and meaning attaches to other things we know. One dimensional learning is boring and easy to ignore what appears.

Second approach

Know what the subject is for. If it is essentially a way to communicate, (language) the technique is not the same as for a subject. The idea of communicating a feeling or mood as with art or music is about a teacher demonstrating how it works.

Munch’s “the Scream”, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and James Lumbers’ ghost images are all art, yet they convey very different feelings.

Would the method chosen to execute the idea affect how they convey their feeling?

The Scream is oil, tempera, pastel, and crayon on cardboard. Would it have a different effect if it was oil on board like the Mona Lisa, or a print, like the Lumbers’ piece.

A third avenue. The student’s toolkit

Part of achieving something involves, subject knowledge, technique, and a set of tools. You require all of them to be able to execute.

A carpenter cannot build a house with knowledge and technique. It would be unreasonable to expect the carpenter to build it without tools and materials. So too with students.

Students tools are not like a nail gun and a table saw, but they can be acquired.

Reading faster reduces the time required to survey material. Apparently an average adult reads at around 250 words a minute. Retention is whatever they can hold for future use. Did you know if you read faster, you retain more? Why? Because you cannot let your mind wander. How many times do you find yourself reading half a page and have no idea what you just read?

Do you use memory aids? Notes for example. Do you know how to take notes effectively? Are there tools that make it easier? You can learn a technique and acquire tools that work better than trying to write down everything the presenter said. Things you write tend to be more memorable.

Can you organize your thoughts in spoken and written form. Learning grammar and syntax is useful, but only if it persuades others. Think about a good speech or insightful article. Understand about the person who receives the message. What can they understand and work with.

The ways you write an novel, or an essay, or a book about persuasion are different. None are random. Authors spend a great deal of time perfecting their approach to their reader. Notice that writing and editing are different functions.

Can you debate an idea? Arguing is a skill and some are quite good at it. Always pay attention to the idea that winning an argument is frequently counter-productive. The goal of debate is to learn from the other’s position and thus add nuance to your own. Sometimes it shows you error. Discovering errors in your position is a huge win. “Knowing” things that are wrong minimizes your effectiveness.

The takeaway

Understand the idea of history. The accumulation of what we know so far.

Know about language and ways to communicate.

Understand there are tools and techniques you can acquire to help

Education should include a balance of all.

Always ask yourself, “What’s it for?’ You’ll be surprised how often it changes how you approach it.

Learning is more fun than almost anything else you can do.

When done right, teaching is very close to learning in terms of satisfaction.

You cannot overpay a good teacher, nor underpay a poor one.

Help me please. If you have found this useful, please subscribe and forward it to others.

I build strategy and fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways and alternate timing to achieve both spending and estate distribution goals. In the past I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning, have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email to

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